Hauntings in paradise

Martha’s Vineyard is flooded with tales of the supernatural.

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Thomas Dresser and Holly Nadler, shown here at 67 Ocean Park in 2019, are two Island authors who are fascinated with the supernatural. — MV Times

Have you ever seen something on the Island that simply cannot be explained with rational reasoning? Maybe you felt a strange presence while walking down an empty street, or caught a glimpse of a nebulous shape shifting in the periphery of your vision. Whatever the phenomena, it’s undeniable that people on Martha’s Vineyard have had these experiences. But these stories wouldn’t be publicly known without a few dogged writers and supernatural authorities who are constantly searching for understanding of things that go bump in the night.

Author Thomas Dresser has written extensively on various historical elements of Martha’s Vineyard, and in 2020 released “Ghosts of Martha’s Vineyard (Haunted America),” documenting many strange and often terrifying accounts of people who experienced hauntings firsthand. “Just peripherally, I’ve been interested in ghosts forever, just because I always knew this kind of thing was out there,” Dresser told The Times. 

Dresser always enjoyed writing, but about 20 years ago, he joined a writing group with Cynthia Riggs and John Hough Jr. One day in 2007, Riggs and Hough got a call from the History Press Publishing Co. — they were looking for regional historians to write about the Island. Both writers got in touch with Dresser that day, and suggested he put his name in for consideration. “I already had a topic I was working on; it was an unsolved murder from 1940, so that was the steppingstone,” Dresser explained. After publishing a number of successful books, Dresser received a call from the editor of History Press, who suggested ghost tales as a hot topic. At first, the author didn’t think it was in his sphere of historical accuracy to write a book about spirits and hauntings. He normally relies on clips from old Vineyard Gazette articles and documentation from the Martha’s Vineyard Museum — ghost stories seemed like a major divergence. “But then the editor said there are probably lots of people I can interview, and I thought that might fit the bill,” Dresser said. 

Apart from his focus on accurate and factual writing holding him back, Dresser said the Island already had a ghost expert in Holly Nadler, who has written a number of books about the supernatural on Martha’s Vineyard. “She’d done a fine job for 25 years, and the last thing I wanted to do was step on her toes,” Dresser said. “But I sat down with Holly, and she basically said, It’s time to pass the torch. I like to say she passed me the lantern.”

Dresser began his ghost research at the Edgartown Council on Aging, where several people reported seeing a young man on the third floor who would appear at random and then disappear without a trace. “I’ve talked with three people who work there who say there is definitely a presence there; they’ve felt it,” Dresser said. 

Once Dresser became more public about his paranormal investigation, more folks came forward about experiences they had personally, or about people they knew who had seen something inexplicable that frightened them. At the old Victorian Inn (now the Christopher) in Edgartown, witnesses described to Dresser a strange and disturbing scene. “There were some people staying at the hotel — some sailors came in wearing raincoats, walked right through their room, and disappeared at the other side,” Dresser said. 

Another terrifying account of an event that purportedly occurred in the old Standish House in West Tisbury continues to awe Dresser to this day. The house was built by the son of Myles Standish in 1656, and British soldiers would supposedly come to stay in the house during the Revolution. In the ’90s, the house was run as a quaint bed and breakfast. One person whom Dresser interviewed was staying there for the night, and awoke to use the bathroom. “As he walked past the living room, there were all these redcoats dancing and drinking. Women were wearing colonial dress,” Dresser said. “The person just thought it was something like a play, or some sort of Halloween party. The next day, he asked the innkeeper, and she said he was the only guest in the hotel that night.”

For Dresser and many supernatural enthusiasts, explaining the spirit world often comes in the form of an easily graspable metaphor in the physical world. “These phenomena are comparable to what we think of as a fingerprint. You put a fingerprint here, and you can’t see it unless you put some powder on it,” Dresser said. “These spirits are fingerprints of people’s lives, like an old negative of a photograph — the ghost is a person who died in an unexpected way, and part of them still lingers here.”

Part of Dresser’s trepidation when he first considered writing about ghosts was his concern that people would make up stories just to get attention. But according to him, the sincerity of each person’s account came through in every interview he conducted. Although Dresser has never experienced an apparition personally, he said he wholeheartedly believes the folks he has spoken with over the years. “Something odd absolutely happened to them, and it just makes you realize that we don’t know everything — actually, we know very little.”

Holly Nadler is often referred to as the ghost lady of Martha’s Vineyard — she’s been giving ghost tours, writing about ghosts, and speaking at various public events for many years. Unlike Dresser, who said he simply isn’t receptive to the spirit world, Nadler has had many encounters with the supernatural. Her first experience happened after her best friend died in a tragic car accident. “She was driving up to Colorado, and ended up flipping off the side of a steep mountain road,” Nadler explained.

Nadler would leave her apartment in Pasadena and walk down to the Pasadena Playhouse, where she was going to school. She’d often leave the record player going for the spirits in her living room (she was already enthralled with the paranormal), and one day she had the idea to leave a record on that her late friend enjoyed during her life. “I remember Jane was just mad about Jefferson Airplane, the ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ album. She loved ‘Go Ask Alice,’ so I was going to put that album on, but I totally forgot the next time I left,” Nadler said. 

That evening, Nadler was taking a soak in her bathtub, and had left some music playing on the record player. Just as the final record was getting ready to drop, it occurred to Nadler that she forgot to put on Jefferson Airplane for the spirit of her friend. “The last album was supposed to be Scott Joplin hits. Instead, what came on was the Jefferson Airplane song ‘Go Ask Alice,’” Nadler said. She leaped out of the bathtub, looked at the albums she had selected, and Jefferson Airplane wasn’t even on the record player. “I bundled up a bag of clothes and left that apartment — I never went back, it scared me to death,” she said. 

Nadler has a number of theories for why ghost activity is so prevalent on Martha’s Vineyard. She said specters are almost like electrical traces carried by traumatic deaths or lives that ended unfulfilled. By being near the water, Nadler said, that electricity is amplified. “There are always lots of ghost stories by the water. We also have hundreds and hundreds of years of history of sea captains who never came home, and their wives who perished while waiting for them — just endless stories like this,” she said. When asked why people are so fascinated with ghost stories, Nadler said she thinks it’s the not knowing that inspires people to think beyond what we can see, hear, and feel. “Ghosts teach us that there is darkness out there, and we don’t see everything with our five senses — sometimes there are things that we just can’t explain,” she said. 

Karen Coffey is a psychic and owner of Pyewacket in Vineyard Haven. She’s lived in haunted houses throughout her life, and has personally experienced some of the anomalous activity described in books by Nadler and Dresser. Coffey lived in the Vanderhoop Homestead in Aquinnah for a time — an experience that she said was one of the greatest challenges of her life. 

The homestead is rumored to be one of the most haunted places on the Island. Coffey would lock all the doors before going to sleep at night, she said, and when she awoke in the morning, the doors would be wide open. At 2 am, when she said most of the activity would take place, one of the windows would blow open and the curtains would be flying furiously, while the adjacent window curtains were completely still. “I recall being asleep, and a mirror came crashing down off the wall. Other times I would wake up in the morning and everything on top of my bureau would be strewn on the floor — not like it had fallen, but it was placed there,” Coffey said. 

Coffey lived in another purported haunted house at 100 Center St. in Vineyard Haven, an old sea captain’s home built in 1858. When Coffey’s son was about 2 years old, he would spend time out in the hallway, where he had his toybox. One day, he came into the living room while Coffey was folding laundry and asked if his friend Kayla could come and play with his toys. “I thought this was an imaginary friend, but my son had actually made contact with a little girl who fell down the spiral staircase — my son told me, ‘Kayla fell and broke her head,’” Coffey said. “There’s an awful lot of history here, a lot of tragedy. Sometimes when people die, a part of them never leaves this realm. You can’t always see them or experience them, but other times, you can.”